May 2020

Building and Sustaining a Championship Culture

by Ron Hewett

As a leader, at some point in your career you will probably have the opportunity to take over a failing operation or see the need to rekindle the fire in an organization that has grown content with its past success. In either case, all eyes are on you, as well as the pressure, to generate the spark to lead change in a positive direction. Others before you have succeeded and you can too if you begin by assessing your organization's culture and attending to the gaps between where you are and where you need to go.

According to The Washington Post, new Washington Redskins' head coach Ron Rivera is confronted with such a challenge as he embarks on a quest to turnaround the fortunes of the long-suffering franchise. He is well-suited for the task. Rivera previously established a winning record with the Carolina Panthers and was selected as NFL Coach of the Year in 2013. But he didn't let success stop him from continuing to innovate. In 2014 Rivera began an association with Charlotte based NASCAR owner Jimmie Johnson and his racing team. Johnson is no stranger to success himself, winning NASCAR's cup championship 7 times. Rivera and Johnson exchanged visits and they found that that there was a consistent ethic in things they both did. They began sharing each other's philosophies and how each had built a sustainable culture. Despite his record of success, Rivera was compelled to improve his organization and sustain a winning culture. Rivera went on to be honored again in 2015 as NFL Coach of the Year.

Rivera's success is not happenstance. A study in the Harvard Business Review showed that cross-pollinating is important to building your own culture as well as solving problems. When leaders in disparate fields draw on different pools of knowledge they are not restrained by existing, “known” solutions. They begin to compare and contrast and, more importantly, create new solutions by adopting new elements into their own culture.

Over the course of my Naval officer career, prior to my corporate life, I found the best place to get new ideas and freshen perspective was to visit other ships. It always amazed me that two ships that looked exactly alike, had the same number of crew members and operated under the same general regulations, could have totally different levels of success in accomplishing their mission. The difference in performance could be traced to the cultural aspects the vessel captains emphasized. Adherence to high standards of overall housekeeping, emphasis on competitive operational drill results, excellence in engineering plant operation, focus on establishing high re-enlistment rates, improvement in professional development of each sailor and officer and others--all left tell-tale traces on the ship's culture. By the time I had become a senior officer taking command of my own ship, I had observed many practices by disparate captains that I felt I needed to adopt. My observations and discussions had given me a sense of what kind of culture I wanted to build and what would help us get there.

How can you incubate the process of looking at your culture and then explore a disparate environment so you can compare and contrast and then conceptualize what you might bring to your organization?

Academy Leadership provides that opportunity with off-site opportunities for corporate groups and individual leaders aboard the Battleship North Carolina. Here executives engage in energized conversations while immersed in the realities and principles of the very culture that sustained the battleship throughout World War II from Pearl Harbor to Tokyo.

With a battleship program, organizations can choose to begin with an analytical approach and visualization of the organization's culture via survey before the program. Once aboard the ship, you will begin to experience and understand what vision and values permeate each participant's culture. Then the conversation is expanded to assess the impact of a variety of leadership principles that are presented during facilitated discussions including visiting parts of the ship where the principles are made visible. Participants begin to compare and contrast cultures and plan next steps for themselves or their organizations. By the end of the program, each participant or group has built an action plan for success and developed a vision to incorporate new elements into their culture.

Programs on the battleship have proven to be rocket fuel for corporate groups and individuals like coach Rivera who want to step back from the canvas, look through the lens of a disparate culture and plan how they will develop their championship culture.